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Wednesday, 12 September 2007

War, poetry

While doing research yesterday, I came across the recently-published The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish War Poetry (Oxford, 2007), edited by scholar-poet Tim Kendall. It is a hefty tome - likely to stop a bullet on the front if held close to the heart - and one that presents itself like an academic survey of the field.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when I came across the essay by David Wheatley (UK-based younger Irish poet-critic), which basically takes a sten gun to an anthology I edited in 2003, and mows it down with the frenzied precision of Violette Szabo. But Wheatley does not merit a medal, nor does this particular critical effort on his part mean his name will be carved with pride.

Mr. Wheatley says this about 100 Poets Against The War (Salt, 2003) - perhaps the most infamous UK poetry book to come out of the post-9/11 landscape (to be current), one of the most widely discussed and read, and surely the most derided - and he says it with the same definitive, indeed, authorial, belittling voice of certitude as one might expect from Leavis (FR or QD): "Swift's memorably dire collection". He then goes on to quote three or so poems from the anthology, and dismiss the work as sub-Marxist agit-prop ranting of the lowest kind. He then goes on to suggest that Charles Bernstein had a better collection, and mentions it. And he praises David Harsent's fine book, Legion.

Okay, you might ask, what's wrong with that? Well, several things are wrong with this, not least of which is the fact this rather serious-sounding book will be around when we're all dust under the feet of some latter-day Tiberius. So, if this is down on one's permanent record, as it were, it would have been nice to see some sort of objective description of the anthology (which was, after all, worthy of half a page of DW's time).

What might a fair, objective (as opposed to polemical and satirical) description of the same book have revealed? Well, it might have informed readers that the anthology has excellent poems from, among others, Charles Bernstein (who Wheatley elsewhere, hypocritically I think, praises, as an alternative to my anthology, as opposed to being a presence in my poetic and editorial vision as well), David Harsent (ditto), Sean O'Brien, Michael Donaghy, Marilyn Hacker, Mahmoud Darwish, and many other major poets, from America, Ireland, Australia, Canada, the UK, and beyond.

So, rather than Wheatley pointing out that both Bernstein and Harsent were early supporters of, and participants in, the 100 Poets Against The War project spearheaded by Nthposition, he sets them up as what the 100 Poets anthology wasn't - a truly false dichotomy. He also fails to mention it was edited in a week, under immense time pressure, used the e-book form in a new way to reach tens of thousands of readers, and was an openly activist, polemical survey of the pulse of the moment. He doesn't bother to locate one - even one - good poem in the anthology, though there are dozens, among the many that are, obviously, relatively weak in the eyes of commanding posterity.

But who is Wheatley, from his lofty prominence, to belittle, so shabbily, this work, that tried to do good, and was, of its time, of some interest?

His example of nasty, dismissive, and yes, cruel, criticism, not bothering to contextualize or empathize, with the practices, aims, or even genre, of such works, is what is chiefly wrong with the UK and Irish poetry community today. Poetry is not just a schoolboy prank.

I am entirely opposed to this kind of unkind, arrogant, and savage prose criticism, and think that, while it has a place in the history of letters, and can be very funny to read from an armchair's distance, and removed in time, it is not any way to help build a future where poetry is read and appreciated by the many, instead of merely the few.

On that note, I read a comment from Don Paterson, the other day, in an interview collection published in 2004, saying he thought more than "30 books of poetry" published in the UK every year was too many - because there aren't that many good poets out there.

That's wrong, as far as I am concerned.

That approach means that publishers became the gate-keepers to consensus, keeping a lid on the poetic ferment beneath. Better, I feel, to let the poems out there, to circulate, so that readers and reviewers can make their decisions (of course, with some attempt at fairness).

There are more than 30 good books of poetry or typescripts currently circulating among editors in the UK. The lack of openness to receiving and publishing them merely controls and limits what appears to be the "mainstream". It allows for marketed successes from major-press-published poets, who seem to rise from nowhere, like Venus on a shell. Ironically, in the name of a new democratic openness, publishers often continue to enact rituals of elitist discrimination that have nothing to do with the actual quality of poetry to hand. New presses, like Salt, and Tall-Lighthouse, don't do that. This suppression of the poetic actual is divisive and damaging, and, more importantly, unnecessary, and it plays into the hands of those who fund the arts, and think less funding is better.

Poetics have consequences - when will we begin to question, seriously, the decisions and opinions of the gate-keepers - to change how things are done?
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